N. Scott Momaday Momaday, N. Scott (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1997) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

House Made of Dawn N. Scott Momaday

(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.

The following entry presents criticism on Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn (1968). For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 19, and 85.

Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Considered a major influence by numerous Native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, and beliefs, and the role of Amerindians in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for House Made of Dawn (1968), Momaday considers himself primarily a poet. All of his writings, however, are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern the nature and origins of Native American myths. House Made of Dawn received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. It was the first novel written by an American Indian author to be so recognized, and its publication along with the award initiated what has come to be called a Native American Renaissance of literature.

Plot and Major Characters

The action of House Made of Dawn takes place between July 20, 1945, and February 28, 1952. The narration comprises an undated prologue and four dated portions set in the Jemez pueblo of Walatowa, New Mexico (the prologue and sections one and four take place here) and the Los Angeles area (sections two and three). After the brief prologue which describes a young man running, the story proper opens on July 20, 1945, when a young man named Abel, an orphan raised by his traditionalist grandfather, Francisco, returns to Walatowa after serving in the second world war. Alienated and disorganized by war experiences (and also, it is suggested, by the early loss of his mother and brother and previous bouts of malaise), Abel is unable to make a meaningful reintegration into the life of the village. He takes a temporary job cutting wood for Angela St. John, a troubled, sensuous visitor to the area, and has an affair with her. He participates in a village festival and is singled out by a strange, ominous-appearing albino man. Meanwhile, the omniscient narration follows a parallel line with the village priest, Father Olguin, as he studies the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolas. On August 1, Abel stabs the albino to death in a cornfield. This section of the story ends the next day with Abel's grandfather Francisco, again alone, hoeing his fields.

The two parts of the second section are dated January 27 and 28, 1952. This section takes place in Los Angeles and centers on the character of Tosamah, a Kiowa storefront preacher and believer in the divine properties of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The January 27 section contains the first of two sermons by Tosamah, a long discourse on a verse from the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word." Tosamah maintains that language has been debased by white people and its power lost or corrupted. At the time that Tosamah is giving this sermon, Abel appears to be lying miles away, barely conscious after having suffered a terrible beating that has disabled his hands. The omniscient narrator moves back and forth in time presenting fragments of Abel's past: filling out forms in prison or afterwards; meetings with an earnest social worker, Milly, with whom he has an affair; life in prison; and testimony at his trial by Father Olguin and by a friend of his from the army. This section also contains a depiction of a peyote ceremony and introduces Ben Benally, who will play a significant part in Abel's eventual apparent rehabilitation. The January 28 section is composed almost entirely of Tosamah's second sermon, a passage in which Momaday meditates on his Kiowa grandmother's life and the history and passing of the magnificent Kiowa culture. (This piece was previously published as an essay in Ramparts magazine and was later incorporated into Momaday's autobiographical work, The Way To Rainy Mountain [1969].)

The third section is dated February 20, 1952, and is narrated by Benally. His rambling narration includes references to more of Abel's life in Los Angeles: his job at a box-stapling factory, his encounters with a sadistic policeman named Martinez, his participation in peyote services, and their occasional socializing with Milly. Benally also recollects the recent encounter with Angela St. John, who visited Abel in the hospital as he was recovering from the beating that left his hands broken; Angela, now the mother of a son, told Abel a story with a heroic theme, intimating that he reminded her of the hero. Benally also recollects going with Abel to a party in the hills outside the city on the night before Abel was to leave; Benally recalls that at this time he sang traditional songs from Navajo healing ceremonies, including the verses beginning the actual Navajo song called "House Made of Dawn."

The fourth section of the novel is very brief, comprising two sections dated February 27 and February 28, 1952. Abel returns to Walatowa in time to perform the appropriate burial rituals for his grandfather. Having seen to this duty, he begins to run into the dawn. The novel has moved in a circle, returning to the event depicted in the prologue.

Major Themes

House Made of Dawn takes its title from a translation of a Navajo song which is part of an extensive religious ceremony. The text of the translation is included in the novel as a song sung by Benally. The house referred to has been identified as one of the prehistoric cliff dwellings along the upper Rio Grande, and the song alludes to it as the home of the semi-divine personification of the dawn. Throughout the novel, important events and insights occur at dawn or sunrise. Also, throughout the novel Momaday incorporates ceremonial, mythical, and anthropological material from three different American Indian nations—Jemez Pueblo, Kiowa, and Navajo—into the texture of the contemporary story of psychological disintegration and renewal. House Made of Dawn is narratively complex, constructed on a principle of fragmentation and reconstitution somewhat like the modernist poems of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, which Momaday studied with noted American poet and critic Yvor Winters while in college and graduate school. The story has a circular rather than linear or strictly chronological structure: the prologue that begins it actually depicts the closing event of the book, and within each section linear time is reshaped through the wandering thought patterns of the narrators and central consciousness. Moreover, within the story are inserted various non-narrative verbal forms: besides the translated poem text mentioned above, there is another translated poem, fragments purporting to be the diary of a priest, pieces of bureaucratic/legal documents and testimony, and folk tales and legends. The reader's attention is repeatedly drawn away from the story and toward the author's literary devices.

Critical Reception

Consistently praised for his exploration of Kiowa concerns and traditions, Momaday is a seminal figure in both mainstream American and Native literature. House Made of Dawn is frequently taught in literature courses, and critics note that all his works are of great importance to Native and non-Native students alike. Momaday's blending of ancient and traditional material with contemporary and modernist techniques has reminded many critics of James Joyce, who combined Catholic religious and Irish political contexts with parallels to classical Greek mythology in such works as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Also, Momaday's use in House Made of Dawn of a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative style, multiple narrative voices, and flashbacks have earned him favorable comparisons with American novelist William Faulkner. Alan R. Velie has observed: "Momaday's achievement in House Made of Dawn is significant. He was able to employ the rhythms and imagery of his verse in creating a prose style that is both lyrical and powerful. It is no mean achievement to make the self-destructive, alcoholic Abel a sympathetic and complex character, or to portray the dusty pueblo of Jemez as a beautiful and exotic place…. House Made of Dawn, Momaday's first literary success, is also his masterpiece."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman [editor] (poetry) 1965
The Journey of Tai-me (folktales) 1967
House Made of Dawn (novel) 1968
The Way to Rainy Mountain (autobiography) 1969
Colorado: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring (nonfiction) 1973
Angle of Geese, and Other Poems (poetry) 1974
The Gourd Dancer (poetry) 1976
The Names: A Memoir (autobiography) 1976
The Ancient Child (novel) 1989
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 (stories and poems) 1993

John Z. Bennett (review date Spring 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of House Made of Dawn, in Western American Literature, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1970, p. 69.

[In the following review, Bennett praises the literary and sociological aspects of House Made of Dawn.]

In academe, where there is a growing tendency to employ literary works as casebooks for social protest or ethnic studies, House Made of Dawn may encounter a curious fate. Because it deals with an interesting variation of the old alienation-theme, namely, the Southwest Indians' conflict with twentieth century America, Momaday's novel may be valued as a social statement rather than as a substantial artistic achievement.


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Marion Willard Hylton (essay date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On a Trail of Pollen: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Critique, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 60-9.

[In the following essay, Hylton presents a thematic analysis of House Made of Dawn, relating "the tragic odyssey of a man forcibly removed from [the Native American] psychic environment and placed within a culture light-years away from the attitudes, values, and goals of his former life."]

Abel was the land and he was of the land; he was a long-hair and from that single fact stemmed the fearsome modern dilemma explored by N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn. Abel is an Indian of the American Southwest, a member of a culture for whom Nature...

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Carole Oleson (essay date Spring 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Remembered Earth: Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 59-78.

[In the following essay, Oleson analyzes the structure and symbolism of House Made of Dawn, paying close attention to the symbol of the earth.]

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and...

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Harold S. McAllister (essay date Winter 1974–75)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Incarnate Grace and the Paths of Salvation in House Made of Dawn," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 115-25.

[In the following essay, McAllister provides a character sketch of Angela Grace St. John and examines religious themes, images, and allusions in House Made of Dawn.]

Angela Grace St. John is one of the most intriguing characters in Scott Momaday's novel, House Made of Dawn. It seems as if Momaday intended for her to have more thematic importance than is immediately apparent. Her thoughts are one of the centers of "The Longhair," and her affair with Abel suggests that she will have some influence on his future....

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Joseph F. Trimmer (essay date Autumn 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Native Americans and the American Mix: N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in The Indiana Social Studies Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Autumn, 1975, pp. 75-91.

[Trimmer is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he provides an overview of the themes and structure of House Made of Dawn, and discusses whether the book meets the Pulitzer Prize's criterion of recognizing works which support "the wholesomeness of culture."]

At the beginning of this century when Joseph Pulitzer was composing the citations for the literary awards to be given in his name [in recognition "for the American novel published during...

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Baine Kerr (essay date Spring 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday's Myth-Making Ethic," in Southwest Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 172-79.

[In the following essay, Kerr examines Momaday's ability to render Native American culture and beliefs within the Western literary construct of the novel.]

Recently I sat through a noisy, irreconcilable argument between two Anglos about Indians. An Irish lawyer for the Navajos from Chinle, Arizona, accused an anthropologist friend of blind sacrilege in the Southwest. The anthropologist, who was not present, was defended as an ally of Indians and preserver of culture. The specific issue concerned the unearthing of Anasazi pueblos and...

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Marilyn Nelson Waniek (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Minority Voices, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1980, pp. 23-8.

[Waniek is an American poet, translator, and essayist. In the following essay, she analyzes the role of language as a source of power in House Made of Dawn.]

In 1969, one year after the publication of his novel House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday, in an article entitled "The Story of the Arrowmaker," interpreted the Kiowa legend of the arrowmaker as a story essentially about the power of language. For the arrowmaker, says Momaday, "language is the repository of his whole knowledge and experience, and it represents the only chance...

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R. S. Sharma (essay date January 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vision and Form in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 69-79.

[In the following essay, Sharma explores Momaday's focus on spirituality and depiction of the Native vision of the world in House Made of Dawn.]

Though initially received with cautious condescension, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn has now come to be regarded as a major statement by a major American Indian writer. Confused by the novel's "rapidly shifting and sometimes ambiguous chronological frame of reference," earlier reviewers and critics found the novel nothing but "an interesting variation of the...

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Alan R. Velie (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "House Made of Dawn: Nobody's Protest Novel," in Four American Indian Literary Masters: N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, pp. 52-64.

[Velie is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he presents a thematic overview in which he discusses the dangers of viewing House Made of Dawn as a protest novel, then maintains that the work is about the protagonist's search for acceptance of his identity and heritage.]

House Made of Dawn is Momaday's masterpiece. In fact, I do not think it is excessive praise to say that it is one of the best...

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Bernard A. Hirsch (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Self-Hatred and Spiritual Corruption in House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 307-20.

[In the following essay, Hirsch analyzes the characters of Martinez, Tosamaah, and Benally and their relationships with the protagonist, noting that for these characters Abel is a symbol of contempt and a reminder of their Native selves.]

N. Scott Momaday, referring to his protagonist Abel, has said, "None but an Indian, I think, knows so much what it is like to have existence in two worlds and security in neither." True as this is of Abel in House Made of Dawn, it is truer still of Martinez, Tosamah, and...

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Michael W. Raymond (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tai-me, Christ, and the Machine: Affirmation through Mythic Pluralism in House Made of Dawn," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 61-71.

[Raymond is an author, critic, and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the role of technology, Christianity, and the Kiowa Tai-me in House Made of Dawn.]

Many critics interpret N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn as depicting disharmony, alienation, and the need for spiritual redemption in a squalid, hellish, temporal world. Martha Scott Trimble, for example, sees it [in her 1973 N. Scott Momaday] as a story of how differences in "language and culture tend...

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Linda Hogan (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Who Puts Together," in Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, edited by Paula Gunn Allen, Modern Language Association of America, 1983, pp. 169-77.

[Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist. In the following essay, she relates Momaday's focus on healing and his incorporation of Native American chants in House Made of Dawn.]

N. Scott Momaday, in his novel House Made of Dawn, draws on the American Indian oral tradition in which words function as part of the poetic processes of creation, transformation, and restoration. Much of the material in the novel derives from the Navajo...

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Matthias Schubnell (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Crisis of Identity: House Made of Dawn," in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, pp. 101-39.

[In the following excerpt, Schubnell discusses Abel's search for belonging and identity in House Made of Dawn.]

My reading of House Made of Dawn focuses on the novel's thematic center: the problem of identity. First I deal with Abel's early years of harmony and the gradual emergence of conflicts which lead to his departure from the community. Next I examine Abel's attempts to resolve his confusion after his return from a war which has further undermined his sense of belonging. In fact, Abel has...

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N. Scott Momaday with Dagmar Weiler (interview date April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Story Teller," in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 118-26.

[In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in April, 1986, Weiler and Momaday discuss various aspects of House Made of Dawn.]

[Weiler]: I'd like to talk very briefly about your position as an Indian writer. Last semester, I took an undergraduate class in which we read Leslie Silko's Ceremony and Storyteller, and I remember that some of the students had problems with those works. We also read House Made of Dawn, which I think was the last novel, and they found difficulty there, too. They asked the question: "Where is the...

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Paula Gunn Allen (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination," in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 570-78.

[Allen is a Pueblo Laguna and Sioux poet, critic, essayist, novelist, and editor. In the following excerpt, she discusses the inclusion of Navajo and Pueblo beliefs in House Made of Dawn, arguing that Momaday's focus in the novel is sickness, healing, and harmony.]

As familiarity with the Bible makes Western culture accessible to the understanding, the basic texts of the Pueblo or the Navajo make their cultures, especially their...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Trimble, Martha Scott. "N. Scott Momaday (1934–)." In Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, pp. 313-24. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Provides an overview of Momaday's life, a discussion of the major themes of his works, critical reception of his writings, and a listing of primary and secondary sources.


Antell, Judith A. "Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle through Male Alienation." The American Indian Quarterly XII, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 213-20.


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